CHARLESTON, S.C. — Hundreds of protesters marched here and in South Carolina’s capital Columbia to protest the Confederate flag’s placement in front of the Capitol building.
The protests came days after nine people were gunned down in a black church in downtown Charleston on Wednesday. The alleged gunman was a 21-year old white man, Dylann Roof, who authorities say came to the church to carry out a racially motivated attack.
The rampage has once again raised a contentious debate in the state about the flag’s continued presence in private and civic life.
In Charleston, protesters — many of them the city’s white residents — marched past the Emanuel AME church where the tragedy occurred calling out “Black Lives Matter.”
As the rally came to an end at the steps of Charleston’s Confederate Museum, Waltrina Middleton, whose cousin DePayne Middleton Doctor was killed in the attack, urged the crowd to not let “the spirit of this moment” die.
“I know that there are a lot of things that I could ask for as a family member, because we want justice for our loved ones,” Middleton, 36, told The Washington Post. “But I also know that DePayne was a woman of faith who cared about people, and she would insist that we not allow her life to be in vain.”
A crowd of several hundred protested Saturday evening in front of South Carolina’s Statehouse in Columbia, where many said that the Confederate flag on the grounds was an outdated symbol that widened racial divisions.
“Take it down! Take it down!” the crowd shouted in bursts.
“The flag has always been a massive point of contention in South Carolina,” said Jessica Doscher, 20, a student at Winthrop University. “And it was always right below the surface, festering. But the shooting of Walter Scott and now this, it’s ignited this powder keg. We can’t ignore that we are flying a symbol of hatred.”
Scott, a black man, was shot and killed by a white North Charleston police officer, Michael Slager, during a routine traffic stop in April. Slager was later charged with murder after video footage recorded by a witness showed him shooting Scott in the back.
On Saturday, Rodgers Boykin, 55, an artist from Columbia, said he was surprised by the diverse make-up of the crowd.
“When I first got here I almost thought I was in the wrong place, because there were so many white people here,” Boykin said with a laugh. “But man, seeing this makes me proud.”
Eric Long, who has lived in Charleston for 30 years, marched with the crowd on Saturday night. Long said he remembers efforts to take down the flag 15 years ago that resulted in it being moved from the Capitol dome to another place on the grounds.
This time, Long said, though lawmakers may not remove it completely, he hopes the pressure will force their hands. “I think this is a tipping point,” said Long, who is white. “There’s just no doubt that it’s a symbol of the past.”
That past, for some, is not so distant. Middleton said she remembers seeing the flag on trucks driven by her classmates and viewing it a form of “intimidation” and a “banner of racism”
“It’s a historical artifact, and they belong in museums,” Middleton said. “They don’t belong on property that welcomes citizens of all walks of life. And I need to know that I’m welcome.”